Kimi Raikkonen won an Abu Dhabi Grand Prix thriller for Lotus while Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel defended his Formula 1 championship lead by fighting sensationally through the field from last place to third.
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso finished runner-up, just 0.8sec behind the Finn after reeling him in with a string of fastest laps, to close the gap with Vettel to 10 points with two races remaining.
On an evening with a huge crash, two safety car interludes and a string of retirements including McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton while leading from pole position, the floodlit Yas Marina hosted one of the sport’s great races and kept stewards busy.
The victory was Raikkonen’s first since 2009, when the 2007 world champion won in Belgium, the 19th of his career and made him the eighth different driver to triumph in 18 races this season. He stopped just once.
Vettel, who had to start from the pit lane due to a fuel irregularity and finally set the fastest lap of what he called a “crazy race”, now has 255 points to Alonso’s 245 and can clinch a third successive title in Austin, Texas, in two weeks time.
“I went to see Sebastian before the race and he said ‘I’ll see you on the podium’,” said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner of a race in which Vettel’s run of four successive wins come to an end but added considerably to his reputation as a true champion. “I think it’s one of the best of his career. He really went for it.”
Red Bull could have clinched the constructors’ championship for the third year in a row yesterday but were made to wait after Australian Mark Webber crashed out. They now have 422 points to Ferrari’s 340 with 86 remaining to be won.
Vettel, who had led every lap of the past three races, and Alonso are the only drivers still in contention for the title, with Raikkonen third overall but 57 behind Red Bull’s 25-year-old.
Raikkonen, a man who has always done his talking on the track, swigged from his bottle of fizzy non-alcoholic rose water on the podium as the other two sprayed theirs at him. Asked in front of the crowd by retired McLaren team-mate David Coul-thard what it was like to win again, the 33-year-old Finn replied in deadpan fashion: “Not much really.
“Last time you guys were giving me grief because I didn’t smile enough but I’m happy for the team. It’s been a hard season and not easy times lately.”
Raikkonen, who had signed a contract extension before arriving in Abu Dhabi, seized second place at the start and inherited the lead after Hamilton slowed and pulled over after 20 of the 55 laps. McLaren said a mechanical fuel pump had failed.
Vettel’s performance matched Raikkonen’s for emotion, with Red Bull changing his gearbox and suspension to more aggressive settings before the race.
His was a roller-coaster evening, forced to pit for a new front wing after he hit a trackside marker board while weaving behind Toro Rosso’s Australian Daniel Ricciardo with the first safety car on track. The safety car was deployed on the ninth lap following a dramatic flying smash when Germany’s Nico Rosberg piled into the back of Indian Narain Karthikeyan’s HRT that had suddenly lost hydraulic pressure.
Rosberg’s Mercedes was pitched into the air and over the Indian before plunging backwards into the safety barriers. Both drivers walked away unhurt. The second safety car period, which set up Vettel’s final chase, followed a multi-car collision that ended Webber’s race along with that of Raikkonen’s French team-mate Romain Grosjean.
McLaren’s Jenson Button was fourth while Scotland’s Paul Di Resta took ninth for Force India, despite colliding with team-mate Nico Hulkenberg and Bruno Senna on the first lap.